By Frank Moher
As he continues his visit to the oil sands and neighbouring communities today, James Cameron will have no clue what they represent to many Albertans.
He will learn that they are a threat to the health and livelihood of the people who live downstream from them, in Fort Chip. He will learn that they are ugly as hell. And from Premier Ed Stelmach, when he meets him on Wednesday, he will learn that “Blahdee blahdee strict environmental standards blahdee blahdee employment for aboriginals bloodee bloodee loved that Titanic.”
What no one will mention is that, for a certain generation of Albertans, the oil sands represented a place at the international table for a small, isolated province, just as the discovery of oil in Alberta in 1947 represented an escape from penury. Before the Leduc find, Alberta was a society susceptible to the funny money schemes of Bible Bill Aberhart and the radio sermons of Ernest Manning; afterwards, it was set on a fast course to modernization. It took awhile, but Peter Lougheed became inevitable.
But it remained a runty, spurned creature in the eyes of the East, and an unknown one outside Canada. But as it become clear that under all that northern forest lay reserves that would make an increasingly oil-starved world take notice, Alberta began to realize it could be a playah. Even if no one else had yet.
And so it has become. Calgary is the new financial epicenter of Canada; American politicians tour the oil sands and make cooing sounds, because they know they need the proceeds to fuel their imperialistic adventures. None of which is to say that the environmental consequences of all those monster machines and tailing ponds should be overlooked just because Alberta wants to feel like a Big Boy. But some historical context might be useful to Mr. Cameron as he makes his way along the Athabasca River — if only to understand why not everyone he meets will shuffle their feet and look ashamed.
Cameron arrives in Alberta:
Cree elder Celine Harpe on the effects of the oil sands: